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What Ever Happened to Japonica Fleming?

By Jeff Wade, IdaHistory

We don’t often offer trigger warnings on our posts, but this one does mention child abuse, including physical and sexual. Please be advised. Also, yes, this is an Idaho story, read until the end.

The camellia japonica or Japanese camellia is a flowering plant found in acceptable climates all over the world. Just like the flower she is named for, Japonica Fleming tried her best to find a place in the world where she could thrive. Japonica was born in South Dakota in 1899 to Maud Fleming, just 14 years old when she gave birth to her only child. The 1910 Census lists Maud as married to William Fleming, but newspaper reports indicate that William was Maud's third husband and Japonica's second stepfather.

On the 24th of July 1909, the Flemings went shopping at 23rd Avenue and Cottage Grove Street in Chicago, where they had just moved from Spokane, Washington. While William and Maud looked in a shop window, Japonica disappeared. She vanished at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon while the area was packed with hundreds of people. The police were alerted and began a frantic search of the city. Newspapers from Washington D.C. to San Francisco printed the story of the kidnapped girl from Chicago, running this description of Japonica: “Age. 11 years; height, 4 feet 11 inches: weight, 100 pounds; dress, blue sailor suit with white collar; hat, broad-brimmed sailor with blue ribbons; black shoes and stockings; eyes, dark blue; hair, brown in two long braids tied with light blue ribbons.”

Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1909

William told police that he noticed an automobile standing on the street as they walked by, Japonica following behind her parents, carrying a bundle of magazines. When he next looked, both the car and his daughter were gone, leading him to fear that the occupant of the car kidnapped the girl. A neighbor of the Flemings told the detectives working the case that she had recently witnessed a man of approximately 25 years speaking with Japonica on several occasions. However, whenever he was approached he would hurry away.

Police believed this sinister and mysterious man possessed Japonica, yet they considered that she might have been a willing participant in her own disappearance. Prior to her disappearance, Japonica made statements that she wished to run away at the first opportunity that presented itself, and the police soon disagreed with William’s assertion that the girl was kidnapped.

Thankfully, four days after she went missing from Chicago, Japonica was found getting off the train in Hastings, Nebraska. The police were notified, and she was taken to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital for unspecified medical treatment. A hospital administrator reported to police that Japonica stated she had been sexually abused since she was only nine years old. While her parents sold magazines to Spokane businesses, she was raped by one of their customers and had been assaulted several times since.

In Spokane, Maude had been married to a man named Gordon Kissell, and Japonica took his last name while the marriage lasted. Gordon treated Japonica with extreme cruelty, oftentimes beating the then 5-year-old child. A neighbor told The Spokesman-Review on August 6, 1904, that he often saw black and blue welts on the girl from Gordon kicking her. Japonica told people that she was forced to sleep outside or left home alone for days without food or drink. Neighbors reported the abuse to police several times, but Gordon explained she was not being abused, rather she had quite the imagination and was prone to over-exaggeration. He noted that Japonica often ran away, earning herself a beating. Maude told the newspaper that her husband disciplined the child, but did not think it ever went overboard. A family acquaintance gave testimony that Maude kept better care of Japonica than she did of her own children, and she was always clean and fed. She also agreed with Maude's statement that Japonica was prone to fib about the abuse.

In August 1904, Japonica was taken by the county while the matter was investigated following more complaints of abuse. During a hearing, a judge returned the child to her parents but chastised them on their use of such severe corporal punishment. Japonica admitted to the judge that she ran away from home because she did not want to wash dishes and that she wanted to go home with her momma and poppa. When they did return home, the situation did not improve. Japonica continued to run away from home, would get caught, then be returned, only to run away again so the judge felt forced to commit her to a reform school. In 1907, Gordon so severely battered Maude that she decided she’d had enough and filed for divorce. She asked the court to restore custody of Japonica to her, arguing that it was Gordon who made the child run away so frequently. Maude’s request was denied and Japonica had to stay at reform school. The next mention of Japonica occurred a year later in September 1908, apparently after her release. Her mother had married William Fleming in May of that year and Japonica now held his last name.

When Japonica arrived in Nebraska after disappearing from Chicago, she claimed she ran away from home because her parents had whipped her for an offense she had not committed. She said she paid for the train ticket and a blue jumper with money taken from her father’s pocketbook. Shortly after she escaped William and Maude, Japonica changed her clothes so she would not be recognized in the crowd as she made her way to the train station. Japonica’s version of the story changed several times in the various newspaper articles covering the story; in one stating she had checked herself into a Chicago sanitarium after running away and earned the money for her train ticket by selling newspapers there.

When Maude arrived in Hastings to collect her child, she was informed that there was to be a court hearing to determine if Japonica would be removed from the Fleming’s custody over the alleged abuse. The court determined on August 20, 1909, that Japonica should be placed with her maternal grandmother, who resided in Fort Dodge, Iowa. From there, custody becomes confused. The 1910 Census lists Japonica as living with her parents in Elkhorn, California. This census information was collected on May 20, 1910. Yet, on July 9th that same year, she was noted as staying at the residence of W.A. Briggs just north of Sacramento with her grandmother.

Japonica once again disappeared, this time from the Briggs home. She took with her $25 stolen from Mrs. Briggs as well as Briggs' four-year-old daughter. It was believed at the time Japonica had been enticed by a man named J. Favershaw to travel to Portland, Oregon with him. Favershaw was a laborer on the Briggs’ property and had been seen paying Japonica “objectionable attention”.

The two girls traveled on a steamship headed to San Francisco when the captain spotted them, questioned the girls, and determined they were runaways. When the ship reached port, however, he inexplicably failed to contact the police. Instead, he placed them on a train returning to Sacramento. The next morning, Brigg's girl, just four years old, was found alone on the train by some family friends who recognized her. There was no sign of Japonica until she was located by police in San Francisco on July 11, 1910. The authorities immediately returned Japonica to her father. She denied that Favershaw was involved in her flight; stating she only wanted to get back to Spokane where she wished to live.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 1910

Four years passed before Japonica was able to complete her next, and final disappearing act. Japonica had spent around a year at the Home of the Good Shepherd, a reform school in Portland, Oregon before her mother picked her up to drive her to Salt Lake City via automobile. On November 3rd, 1914 in Salt Lake City, the Fleming’s last saw their 17-year-old daughter, although the exact circumstances were not recorded in any available newspaper. It was not until August 14, 1915, that the chief of police in Boise, Idaho received a letter from Maude Fleming, then living in Minneapolis, imploring him to look for her missing daughter. She noted that while passing through Boise in their automobile, Japonica “admired the city exceedingly” and thought she might have returned to Boise after going missing in Utah. There was also some speculation that Japonica had been taken by a “white slaver”, what we would now call a human trafficker, to Ontario, Oregon, and from there to Pocatello, Idaho.

It was while in Pocatello, Idaho that Mrs. Fleming received the largest, but saddest clue regarding Japonica’s whereabouts. On November 20, 1914, it was reported that a girl around 20 years of age was found dead in a Pocatello opium den. The cause of death was listed as an overdose of opium, but it remained unknown whether she administered the dose to herself, or if the two men accompanying Japonica did the deed. The two men in question were “Bill” Gooden, who sold the drug, and Frank Arnold Brown. The men were arrested and charged with white slavery but denied knowing Japonica’s name and the charges seemed to have been dropped without prosecution. The local Eagle’s Lodge provided a respectful burial. Her belongings were held by the police to possibly identify the unknown girl in the future.

When the chief of police of Pocatello received a letter from Maude, he responded that Japonica’s description matched that of the girl who died in the opium den the year before. Yet, when Maude arrived in Pocatello, the mystery only deepened. The body of the girl from the opium den was exhumed and viewed by Maude. The corpse did not match Japonica’s description. The story became even stranger when she received the dead girl’s belongings to review. She did not recognize any of the items, save one, a photo of Japonica from years earlier.

Salt Lake Tribune, Jan 18, 1916

Perhaps grief can explain why Maude did to recognize her daughter’s body, or the advanced state of decay prevented her from identifying the remains, but the Pocatello police believed likewise that the dead girl was not Japonica. In fact, the body had already been tentatively identified as that of Maude Waring on December 3, 1914, prior to any decomposition. Maude, ironically sharing the first name of Japonica’s mother, had gone missing from Denver, Colorado that same year. A police officer from Denver investigated and concluded that the body likely belonged to Maude Waring.

Maude Fleming left Pocatello believing her daughter lived, dedicated to finding her once again. That was the last mention of Japonica Fleming or her parents in the newspapers. It is unknown what happened to them or if they did in fact keep searching.

So what happened to Japonica? Did she in fact die in Pocatello, or fall victim to other tragic circumstances? Maybe, once free from her parents, Japonica changed her name, went to a city she liked - maybe Boise - and began anew. Hopefully, she lived the way she wanted and became the woman she wanted to be. Perhaps she got married, had kids, and now her grandchildren are out there, still wondering why they cannot locate their grandmother’s birth records.

Tell us what you think in the comments, did Japonica die a tragically young death - or did she live happily ever after?

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